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Sunday Times STLive By Diane Coetzer, 2010-07-11

Runaway Success

She's emo's pin-up girl, the perfect Bella, but Kristen Stewart also knows how to give the finger to Hollywood by tackling real roles in real movies. By Diane Coetzer

For someone who's as reluctant a celebrity as she clearly is, Kristen Stewart more or less leaves it up to her hair to speak for her.

Just as her new movie, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, opened in South Africa, the actress caused a major cybersurge when she turned up for an interview with David Letterman sporting a head of chic, auburn hair.

Seconds after the 20-year-old strode onto the set of The Late Show, clad in a one-shoulder little black dress, the bloggers were at it: "Kristen Stewart debuts new hairstyle: love it or loathe it?" demanded a gazillion blogsites and, seconds later, a gazillion-plus pundits were weighing in.

It had been no different when Stewart was first seen out and about in 2009 with her hairdo during filming for the biopic, The Runaways.

"Kristen's got a mullet," shrieked the tabloids before those in the know scrambled to archly correct the writers of the horrified online posts that it was actually a "glam-rock shag" favoured by the guitarist for The Runaways, Joan Jett, whom Stewart had been cast to play.

It's no real surprise to find Stewart happy to let her hair ratchet up media space for her: no matter what she does, the actress can't properly escape the moody, twitchy, lip-bitingbox she's been shoved into since her career went supersonic on the back of the first Twlight movie in 2008.

And you can't say Stewart doesn't make an attempt to play the game.

She tries irony. "We were told time and time again that it was completely fine to learn how to scuba dive in 10 minutes," she tells Letterman about an experience in Australia, swimming with sharks. She tries to be serious. "When we were in Berlin . I went to the Holocaust Museum and that was incredible for me .," she confesses. Stewart even attempts the personal card, bringing in pictures of her pet wolf, Jack, to her Letterman appearance.

But no matter what the Los Angeles-raised actress does, the heaving mass of Stewart commentators are having none of it.

"Painfully awkward Kristen," roared the headlines yet again, post the Letterman show - also laying into her for describing her recent movie junkets as more fun because her current boyfriend, Robert Pattinson, was working and her companion was her "active" co-star Taylor Lautner.

Actually, if pundits cared to look a bit deeper, Stewart's elegant, more sophisticated current look is matched with a deeper self-knowing.

"That's great, that's great - that will follow me around for a while," she says (with an ironic thumbs up) after hearing the audience guffaw at her earnest description of having fun with Lautner.

That Stewart understands the rules of the game - and when she's transgressed them - comes with having spent close to half her life in the public eye.

The media spotlight began back in 2002 with Stewart's unexpected star-turn and critically-acclaimed appearance in the David Fincher film Panic Room, alongside Jodie Foster. Although Stewart had earned attention a year earlier for her role in the indie drama The Safety Of Objects, it was Panic Room that set her on the trail to her role as Bella Swan in the Twilight series. Incidentally, the actress was reportedly spotted by an agent at a school concert when she was just eight.

It's no hype to say that the trio of movies about vampires and abstinence and love at all costs has catapulted her into the homes of young fans globally - millions of whom have finally found an actress worthy of pasting on their bedroom wall.

There were a few raised eyebrows when Stewart chose The Runaways as her most high-profile new movie project outside of Twilight. The telling of the early years of the mid-'70s all-girl rock group - razored haircuts and all - seemed to be, at least on paper, hardly the blockbuster you might expect her to sign on for.

But for all her full-force power, she's stated over and over again that she's "not so interested in being a Hollywood star". What she's interested in is acting - and the chance to play the iconic female guitarist sees her carefully adding another, quite considerable, dimension to her abilities.

Actually, Stewart's a deft match for the musician's transition from Joan Marie Larkin to the leather-clad, guitar-wielding Jett whose desire to be part of an all-girl rock band helped lead to the formation of The Runaways. Her performance is restrained against Dakota Fanning's high-voltage take on The Runaways' emotionally shattered co-lead singer, Cherie Currie, but is no less powerful for it. And it's hard not to draw a line from Jett's ability to straddle the masculine and feminine worlds (lesbian love scenes surface in The Runaways, including a tender, impromptu kiss between Fanning and Stewart) to Stewart's part-geek, part-emo, part-androgynous public persona.

Perhaps because of her own uneasiness with Hollywood stardom, Stewart brings out the difficulties of being an outsider in '70s America with true flair.

Her Jett is quietly but firmly unceasing in her desire to play rock guitar (not the acoustic soft rock one hapless guitar teacher attempts to turn her onto) and create an all-girl group that is genuinely good. She even puts up with the sometimes manipulative dealings (counting the cash whilst telling the girls they played their first gig for free) of The Runaways producer, Kim Fowley (superbly played by Michael Shannon), whilst absorbing his exhortions ("it's about press, not prestige!"; "it's not about women's lib - it's about women's libidos" and so on).

It's also Stewart's Jett - aided in part by Stella Maeve's terrific portrayal of the late drummer Sandy West - who most propels the radical notion of teenage girls playing swaggering, sexual rock music. The story also hints at the unhinged, shambolic but potency punk music.

Stewart openly admires of the role The Runaways played in creating a space for women performers, telling an interviewer the band was "the first girls to ever play aggressive, sexual assertive rock 'n' roll". Actually, in director Floria Sigismond's hands, the film is a pretty powerful reminder of the glaring absence of great female rock performers on the contemporary music scene. Even the likes of Kurt Cobain's widow, Courtney Love (an avowed fan of The Runaways), seems to have succumbed to a muted form of the genre on her latest album, Nobody's Daughter - a release that makes her 1994 rock masterpiece Live Through This seem like a hazy mirage, obscured by Love's erratic twittering and strange love for plastic surgery.

Sigismond is a music video director and she uses The Runaways - and, in particular Stewart's Jett - to deliver a scorching new take on the group's big hits, including Cherry Bomb, shown being written, on-the-spot, by Fowley with Jett in a manner that you could never imagine a modern-day pop svengali like Simon Cowell achieving. (For Cowell, a sarcastic put-down is the sum of what he's allowed to get away with on his multiple reality television shows; for Fowley it's lines like "jail-f***ing-bait! Jack-f***ing-pot!" when he realises the potential of Jett and West's joint desire to create an all-girl rock outfit).

Much has been made of Fowley - a modern-day precursor to Cowell, always on the hunt for a new project (including heading to Australia in the '80s to find the new Beatles - or ABBA - Fowley wasn't fussy). Claims that The Runaways were nothing more than a band put together by the producer are roundly scotched in Sigismond's film - and again, it's Stewart's uncontrived ability to portray Jett's relentless pursuit of guitar-playing perfection that's key to portraying The Runaways as the real thing.

If the film focuses more intently on Currie's story (it's based on the singer's memoir, Neon Angel), The Runaways' closing moments are all Stewart's - Sigismond skips ahead to Jett's post-The Runaways career.

In a grimy apartment that belies the band's Japanese success (the beginning of the end for drug-blasted Currie) and record deal with Mercury, Stewart's much-maligned moodiness is used to full effect by the director as she portrays Jett's initial solo songwriting foray - that ultimately resulted in the monster global hit I Love Rock 'N' Roll.

The song (performed with Jett's band, The Blackhearts, and still one of Billboard's Hot 100 Singles chart's biggest hits of all time) was a middle-finger salute to those who said girls had no business in the business of rock 'n' roll.

It's entirely appropriate, too, for Stewart who, in refusing to be a Hollywood star or shrug off her indie attitude or beef-up on her talk-show banter, remains that rare thing in young entertainers these days: really interesting and still enigmatic.

  • The Runaways opens on July 9.